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The Peninsula

What to Expect during the Park-Obama Summit

Published October 7, 2015
Category: South Korea

By Phil Eskeland

With Washington still abuzz from recent visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping, His Holiness the Pope, a few royals from Spain and Sweden, and the resignation of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is important for Washington to focus on the critical upcoming summit meeting between President Barack Obama and President Park Geun-hye of the Republic of Korea (ROK).  The U.S. and South Korea are treaty allies of over 60 years with 28,500 U.S. troops deployed on the Korean peninsula to provide stability and peace in Northeast Asia.  Over these past 60 years, South Korea has also moved from a U.S. foreign aid recipient to America’s sixth largest trading partner, ahead of every European country except Germany.  President Obama has made more trips to Korea than any of his predecessors, demonstrating the growing importance and understanding within the United States of the strong bilateral relations between the two countries.  The October 16th summit meeting was initially planned to take place last June but President Park decided to focus on ending the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Korea before departing the country.  With that goal accomplished last July, the summit was rescheduled for October.

The timing is very appropriate.  With an anticipated provocation by North Korea (DPRK) on or about October 10th to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Worker’s Party, dealings with the DPRK will be high on the summit agenda.  With the recent success of President Park in responding to the August DPRK provocations on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, this prompted a brief glimmer of hope in inter-Korean affairs with the restart of family reunions talks.  However, North Korea may be going back to the old cycle of provocation, negotiation, and resolution with a possible new provocation on October 10th even over the objections from its only ally China.  A coordinated response between the U.S. and South Korea not just to this possible threat but on North Korea over the long-term is a critical matter to discuss at the summit.  The two countries must be shoulder-to-shoulder on this key national security matter where the threat from North Korea is now the third largest challenge facing the United States out of any other nation-state.  It is important for the two leaders to compare notes on their recent meetings with the Chinese leadership regarding their understanding of how China can play a helpful role in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and ending North Korea’s destructive cycle of behavior.

However, a summit meeting between Presidents Park and Obama should not be overshadowed by North Korea.  The U.S.-ROK relationship should continue to reflect South Korea’s growing role to assist with resolving global problems well beyond the Korean peninsula.  The Park/Obama summit will discuss issues that both countries can address together such as climate change, development assistance, international peacekeeping, global health challenges, and science and technology.

Economics and trade issues should also not take a back seat to the security challenges facing the U.S. and Korea.  Any slowdown in the economies of East Asia has ramifications for the U.S. economy, both in terms of dampening demand for U.S. exports and inward foreign direct investment (FDI) from Korea to create U.S. jobs.  Korea is now America’s 16th largest source of FDI totaling over $24 billion in 2012.  I had the privilege of touring two U.S. subsidiaries of Korean firms during my recent trip to Dallas and saw first-hand the hundreds of workers employed as a result of the presence of LG and Samsung in Texas.  But the impact of FDI is more than just the direct employees – every forklift (almost all were electric!) that I saw used at the massive LG warehouse was made by Nissan Forklift (owned by UniCarriers) in Marengo, Illinois (another positive example of FDI).  Thus, workers in Illinois indirectly benefitted from LG’s investment in Texas as well.

The final item that may be discussed privately among the two leaders at the Park-Obama summit is the very sensitive matter of Korea-Japan relations.  The U.S. cannot dictate terms for both countries to improve their relations but the U.S. can play a facilitating role to help narrow the differences between the two countries.  There has been some modest progress in recent months but obviously much more needs to be done.  President Park was remarkably gracious and restrained in her speech after the statement of Japanese Prime Minister Abe marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II stating that his comments “did not quite live up to our expectations.”  This summit will represent another effort to set the stage for a future trilateral meeting of the three leaders, particularly if the “comfort women[PE1] ” issue is resolved within the coming weeks.  Obviously, there could be setbacks along the way but hopefully momentum can be maintained from this summit meeting, along with future U.S. interactions with the Japanese government, to prompt a satisfactory resolution of this matter very soon.  Ironically, if North Korea carries out its proposed missile launch, it will have the effect of bringing Japan and South Korea closer together to cooperate on security matters of mutual concern.

While there is much to discuss in the robust and vibrant U.S.-Korea relationship, expectations are that the two leaders will discuss (1) North Korea; (2) global issues of common interest and concern; and (3) Korea-Japan relations.  If North Korea carries out a provocation on or around October 10th, the emphasis of the summit may unfortunately once again disproportionately focus on North Korea but hopefully the two leaders will direct the conversation both in public and in private towards issues that recognizes and respects South Korea’s role as leader on various transnational issues that affect people well beyond the Korean peninsula.


Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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